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Maria Nicanor is Assistant Curator of Architecture at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Nicanor joined the curatorial staff in October 2005. At the Guggenheim, she has worked on several exhibitions, including Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso (awarded Best Historical Show for 2006–2007 by the International Association of Art Critics (AICA-USA); Cy Twombly for the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao; Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward (awarded Best Architecture/Design Show for 2008–2009 by AICA-USA); Contemplating the Void: Interventions in the Guggenheim Museum; and most recently, Color Fields for the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin.
Together with Assistant Curator David van der Leer, Nicanor heads the curatorial team of the BMW Guggenheim Lab, an international traveling laboratory for urban experiments and public programs traveling to nine cities over six years. For an overview of the BMW Guggenheim Lab, click here.
This is a lab, an experiment. It’s about the process, awareness and about getting people to think about the city in new ways.
How did the idea for the BMW Guggenheim Lab come about?
About two years ago BMW came to us and said they wanted to work on a project that was global and was about cities, but besides that they didn’t give us many parameters. So David van der Leer and I sat down to write our dream proposal, never thinking that they would accept it — it was very ambitious. To our surprise, after a year of negotiations they said yes.
In many ways, this Lab is similar to the types of programs we present at the museum. But we wanted to take our exhibitions beyond the museum walls. If we are talking about the city, then let’s actually use the city. We already had these ideas in mind, but we couldn’t have implemented them without the support of BMW.
How will the lab interact differently with each site, and within the specific cultural context of each city?
This is a global project, but the local component is most important to us. In each city, the Lab structure will engage the specific site. Here in New York, the Lab sits between two tenement buildings to pull from the history of the East Village and the Lower East Side. But when it moves to Berlin, the structure will sit on the Pfefferberg site — an old, industrial brewery that is very typical of the Berlin landscape. In Mumbai we are collaborating with the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum to secure a site close by, the former home of the Victoria and Albert Museum. In each place it will develop a completely different personality.
So the physical space will adapt, but also the programs will be completely different in each location. There will be a new “Lab Team” in each city that helps develop the programming and works with local institutions and individuals engaged with urban issues. Lab Team New York is talking a lot about the underlying physical systems that feed cities. Lab Team Berlin might be developing some sort of hand-held device that allows you to be more comfortable in the city. And Lab Team Mumbai is focusing on issues of access.
It's almost like that Woody Allen film Zelig, when the main character finds empathy by transforming into the person he’s talking to — I think the Lab will be a little like that.
How did you select the New York City site? Whom do you hope to attract to the lab?
We wanted to find places where people live and work and play. So, from very early on we knew that we didn’t want to have the Lab in Central Park, where it might feel like a UFO had landed. It had to be in a place where there was engagement and life and activity. David and I actually found the specific location while on a bike ride.
And whom do we hope to attract? We say “4 to 94 year-olds,” though I think that may be a little ambitious. There are going to be programs for so-called “experts,” but living in the city is a universal topic for New Yorkers, and plenty of visitors and tourists are interested in the urban condition, so we hope our events will attract a wide audience.
It’s like the Woody Allen film Zelig, when the main character finds empathy by transforming into the person he’s talking to — I think the Lab will be a little like that.
Tell us about the theme, “Confronting Comfort.” How did that develop?
At first, we talked a lot about responsive architecture and intelligent buildings, but we realized the conversation was focused too much on the brick and mortar. Rather than talk about futuristic visions of how architecture is changing, we decided to focus on how people experience the city. The theme progressed from there. When you are living in a city, what you are ultimately looking for is comfort – you want to be in a comfortable space.
We want to explore the idea of individual comfort versus collective comfort. What collective comforts do we sacrifice when we make choices to advance our individual comfort level? For example, you maintain comfort in your apartment by flushing your toilet many times a day. What consequence does that have for a waste treatment site in New Jersey? The questions then tie into urban infrastructure as well. It’s about understanding that your individual actions have a ripple effect.
We also want to confront ideas of traditional comfort versus responsible comfort. Traditional comfort, to us, is based on 1950s American ideas of luxury — having air conditioning and a good fridge. So how do we find ways to be comfortable that are responsible to the collective and to the city?
Tell us a little bit about the design and your work with Atelier Bow-Wow.
The design brief was a bit crazy, because we wrote it before we knew where the site would be. We just asked them for a space in which we could do everything and anything. They decided to create a void space and have all the equipment fly above so it becomes like a theater. If we need to host a dinner, we bring the tables down. When we don’t need them anymore, we raise them back up. If we have a lecture and need more chairs, we bring down more chairs and then lift them back up.
Atelier Bow-Wow created a frame for us. We specifically said that we didn’t want something iconic. The Guggenheim is known for iconic, bombastic buildings and this is the opposite. It is very unassuming. We want people to focus on the content, the people and the events without being bothered by the space. Their design has created the feel of a street when the gates are open, a passageway that wasn’t there before.
Is the lab intended primarily to inspire discourse about cities? Or are there specific plans for the outcomes of these conversations?
After the first three cities we will present an exhibition at the Guggenheim here in New York to reflect on everything that’s happened. But this is a lab, an experiment. It’s about the process. What happens here every day will be of equal importance to the outcomes. Which is why the website is crucial, because it will become an archive of all those ideas. It’s about awareness and about getting people to think about the city in new ways.
Click through to read an introduction to the BMW Guggenheim Lab, and interviews with Omar Freilla, Charles Montgomery, Olatunbosun Obayomi. and Elma van Boxel and Kristian Koreman.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.